Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Making Big AAA Games: Not the Dream Job (Anymore)

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 17, 2010

Cliff Harris talks about working in the AAA games biz at Computer And Video Games.

He’s done it, I’ve done it. I’ve even interviewed a bunch of mainstream games industry refugees gone indie and wrote an article about it a couple of years ago.

I was reflecting on this a bit earlier when talking about my last employer in the traditional games biz earlier this week. The studio was managed like… well, like too many video game studios. A lot like what Cliffski is talking about above.

It is my belief that a big part of the issues he suggests is a cultural legacy thing. The culture persists even though the situation that spawned it is long gone. It’s probably easier to explain it by first illustrating it:  I don’t know what kind of hours Cliffski puts into making his indie games now. But I’ll bet he’s far happier putting in extra hours and effort when need be now than he ever was working for his former employers in the mainstream biz.

That’s the problem that has been illuminated since EA_Spouse dropped the bombshell open letter several years ago.  It wasn’t that long ago that most or all of the developers had a stake in the success of a game. We had profit-sharing back at SingleTrac. When I was at Acclaim, they’d just recently changed the bonus system to cap the maximum a developer could receive from royalties. As one long-term senior employee explained to me, “I made a LOT of money on WWF Wrestling. I built my house on that money.”

It’s interesting how Acclaim went into a death spiral after this change of policy, huh? I won’t assign causality here, though… merely correlation.

For much of the early history of the industry, the developers were stakeholders. They either got a portion of the profits if the game did well, or they had a stake in the company. If the company did really well, they made bank. So naturally, these early developers were highly motivated to work their butts off.  They had ownership. And so a culture was created around developing games. These guys were cowboys.

Things have changed. Not only do very few individual developers in the mainstream game biz have a stake in the profits anymore, but the royalty structure and competitiveness of the industry has evolved to the point where  the vast majority of games make their studio NOTHING beyond their initial advance.  The publisher takes all (and may, depending upon how tricky the accounting is, actually lose money on the bulk of their releases; one hit pays for a half-dozen losers).

But the culture of the industry has tenaciously remained.  It’s been encouraged by management – because it is completely to their advantage.  They use peer pressure and the supposed glory of working on a big game and maybe vague suggestions (not even promises) of bonuses in the future as motivation. And so the culture persists, even though its foundation has long been abandoned.

Put in all that overtime for free, people, and one day you’ll be able to tell your kids about it! Well, not that you’ll ever be able to settle down and raise a family the way we’re working you, but… well, nevermind.

Curiously, the foundation is alive and well for indies, but I don’t hear the professional, full-time indies bragging much about how much time they put into making their games each week. It could be happening – I just don’t hear it.

Once upon a time, my advice to indies was actually the route I took: Put in your time working for a major developer. You’ll learn a lot. I sure did. But I don’t think that holds water anymore. The team sizes in major studios are so big now that you’ll just be a very specialized cog in the system, without much visibility into the rest of the development process. Nowadays, I’d say that if you are going to work for a traditional studio as a chance to learn your craft, go for a smaller one, working on things like handheld games or downloadable titles.

But even so — traditional studios as training ground for indies is sounding more and more like taking a job a food packaging plant as training to be a chef.  There’s just not as much carry-over of skills. And while once upon a time, I found myself wishing I had been on the team to make some of  the most awesome AAA games of the era, I don’t find myself wishing I had anything to do on the biggest titles today. It’s more likely to be a small-but-brilliant little indie game that makes me say, “I wish I’d written that one!”

Filed Under: Biz, Mainstream Games - Comments: 15 Comments to Read

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,


    I remember working at 3DO and feeling that peer pressure. One of my favorite stories was how I wanted to take my birthday off because I was at max vacation days earned; my father was a blue collar worker and always got his birthday off, so I figured it was appropriate. The problem is my birthday’s on November 1st, and we were scheduled to ship on October 30th. Well, surprise surprise, we slipped our date. So, of course, my supervisor (since I was technically still a junior programmer despite being the only programmer on Meridian 59 for over a year) tells me that I can’t take my birthday off. He tries to offer me more vacation days to come in, but I explain I’m already at max. I had completed my tasks in time, and any other tasks I’d pick up would take longer to learn that we were going to have to work on the game. I came in on nights and weekends to work on Meridian 59, so they probably assumed I’d be happy to work long hours on another project. Heh, no thanks.

    But, I remember the speeches my supervisor gave. “Come in and show support for the team!” “Oh, you should see those guys working on High Heat (3DO’s baseball game)…. They got a couch so they can sleep at the office!” (Implying we were lucky to merely work 12+ hour days and be able to go home.) The sad part was when people sat around bitching about how it was worse at other companies. In the end the game shipped and it was terrible. But, that whole experience soured me on mainstream game development.

    Not that being an indie is a bed of roses, but when I put in long hours I know who is benefiting: me and my team.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    The thing I learned was that as “crunch time” went from being days to weeks and months, productivity dropped to where people were only doing 40 hours (or less) of work on 60 – 90 hours of effort each week anyway. So what’s the point? A week or two of “big push” time would be fine for a demo or whatever, but beyond that, it was just for show.

  • Breakdance McFunkypants said,

    The AAA games industry has a terrible reputation when it comes to quality of life, work-life balance, and much more importantly, in the success ratio of game projects.

    How can you expect to get a bonus, for example, when it is widely accepted that 85% of AAA projects (that actually get finished) never recoup their dev expenses (this number is taken from this month’s Gamesauce magazine), and only 5% of all AAA completed projects ever make a significant profit.

    Considering perhaps 50% of AAA projects get cancelled halfway through, either for lack of funding, their publisher pulling out, or personnel problems, you stand a 2.5% chance of the game you put your blood sweat and tears into to be profitable, and thus your chances of getting a huge bonus are very slim indeed.

    This is the sad truth in a “hit-driven” industry. Most games, even popular ones, are created at a loss in the hopes that one is a hit and can pay for all the others.

    The second nail in the coffin for the AAA industry is the fact that all the managers are young – I mean, really young – because only single guys fresh out of university want to work mandatory overtime, have no social life, and no wife or family they want to spend time with.

    Nearly all game industry veterans leave after less than a decade to work for more stable non-game software companies because 40 hours a week is all their families (and their sanity) will allow. Plus, the pay’s better in non-game software development.

    This is the second sad truth of the AAA games industry: the managers are kids with little project management experience and thus they fall prey to the same overly-optimistic timeline estimates and featurecreep that newbies always do. When your managers consistently make the mistake of requiring the dreaded “crunchtime” they have dropped the ball.

    Poor pay, inexperienced project managers, slim chances of your game being a hit, and deplorable working conditions mean that the best and the brightest quickly get burned out and move on to other industries, leaving only the young and naive or the masochistic and aniti-social developers to run the show.

    Not that it is all doom and gloom: things are definitely changing for the better, albeit slowly.

    The games industry has one bright shining beacon of hope: Indies.

  • Calibrator said,

    On the other hand a 2.5% chance is still better than playing lottery.


  • McTeddy said,


    Everything I try to write here is turning into a rant, So I’ll leave it at that.

  • Morinar said,

    I completely agree with everything you wrote, hell, you and I lived through all the same things at SS. All that being said, that was still the only job I’ve ever had that I was excited to go to everyday. My current job is completely stable and has very regular hours, but is almost mind numbingly boring. I dream of doing game development again, but I just don’t know how I could ever deal with that kind of situation again. I really don’t know what to do, because I worry that I can find a job outside the industry that I’ll be as passionate about but I don’t want to re-enter the industry due to the conditions. I don’t have the drive to do indie development on the side (kudos to you for doing so) so that isn’t even really an option. I sort of feel like I’m in a lose-lose scenario.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    @Rampant Coyote / regarding crunch times

    I may be a little naive (I’ve never worked for a mainstream developer, only indies, though I have contracted for small freelance art with some “professional” companies), but I think the games industry needs to get right the hell over the idea that crunch time is EVER necessary.

    I don’t care if it for a demo for E3 or whatever, if you need crunch time, it means the project was poorly planned and managed from the start. I’ve had crunch time working in indie teams, and it was always because we slipped on milestones in the weeks prior, mainly because the team leader or manager who made out the Gantt chart was inexperienced/didn’t know the strengths and weaknesses of the team/had no idea how long certain things would take, etc.

    Breakdance McFunkypants is absolutely right when he points out the really young managers being a significant problem. Not to mention that these managers often have no real training in management or leadership and are forced to learn on the job.

    I have a degree in business, and of course I have my service in the Marine Corps leading groups of men with diverse skills in actual life and death situations. So I have leadership training and skills. I get things done on the rare occasions I am unfortunate enough to be in charge of a development team. My team gets things done. For one major reason: I am a complete bastard that gives orders, takes no excuses, drops members that miss milestones, and run the operation like a BUSINESS and not like a frat house project. You can’t be people’s buddy. When the project is a success, most people will forgive you afterward. But I also make damn sure that if someone has met their requirements on time, they have no “crunch period” at the end. Those that slipped continuously on milestones and are behind on their obligations have a pretty miserable last few weeks, however. (Remember how I said I prefer to work alone a couple of weeks ago? I don’t like having to be the bad guy.)

    Overtime without pay in any job is unacceptable. It should be illegal. I’ve only put in unpaid overtime at one job in my entire life – the Marines. (Technically their is no overtime as there is no set work hours usually, but I count going days without sleep as overtime in that case.) That was life or death. Otherwise, working to put out a GAME, I better be paid for every hour I work, and not with the paycheck equivalent of a lottery ticket either.

    The games industry needs to change. The current structure, work environment, team size, and budgets are all unsustainable. Budgets are reaching critique mass for AAA titles, and eventually no profit will be possible.

    My goal used to be to get a job with a mainstream game developer, but like you said Jay, I don’t think that is the smartest idea anymore. Working as a commercial artist doing freelance work, advertisements, and graphic design, while making my own indie games in my spare time, seems like a much healthier and happier way of life until a paradigm shift occurs in the mainstream industry.

  • Jake Birkett said,

    Great article and comments.

    As an Indie I have worked crazy hours before at times, but that was because I had immovable deadlines like Christmas and Easter for a couple of my games. But most of the time I would just work at a pace that felt OK to me at the time based on a number of factors. I prefer working in the evening and so being able to go outside and/or see my family in the daytime is a real plus of being Indie. Also if I’m just not into it one day, I’ll have a day off. This could be a problem and escalate if I wasn’t generally well-motivated of course.

    When I’m really into something sometimes I’ll just keep going late, and I may work at the weekend. As an Indie you shouldn’t have that “Monday feeling” or be saying “I can’t wait until the weekend” because your job should be fun and you feel like doing it any day. Most people with jobs don’t feel that way…

  • BinaryDad said,


    While I agree with most of what you say, I have to tell you that most development teams are not run like frat houses. If milestones are missed, or unrealistic demands are made of the team, it’s not because people are goofing off or management turn working hours into one big party. It’s because there is something fundamentally wrong with the guys running the whole show, and often, these are guys who are far from being young.

    Of course, that’s not to say that members of a development team don’t cause issues. Sometimes they do, but they’re typically not the reason that projects fall behind or fail completely.

  • Hourences.com – Almost! said,

    […] and reading through some game design books I borrowed from school. Also came across this blog today Making Big AAA Games: Not The Dream Job (Anymore), which pretty much sums up my feelings as […]

  • Anon said,

    I think the point being made about age vs seniority is a really true, and also greatly overlooked one. In my company, of 6 designers, the seniority of job title is inversely proportional to the age and years of experience. Something about that just doesn’t add up.

  • Madness said,

    What makes you think the games industry is any different to any other software shop?

    Bad planning and bad management are prevalent in most places and the long hours are seen as required rather than optional.

    Put the correct processes in place and you can turn an inefficient 6 person project in to an 80 person project that can hit every deadline and meet the original specifications within the agreed budget.

    At the end of the day it is just software development. Once things for sure, it’s a lot more interesting than some projects I can tell you.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I’ve worked in both.

    And you aren’t wrong. I’ve worked in good & bad environments in both games & non-games. But the difference for me, personally, is that I’ve never had a non-game job with the quality of life issues I’ve had at a couple of game companies. The non-game jobs didn’t have stacks of resumes of fresh-faced young kids who would be willing to put up with anything (or so they think) for their chance to make video games.

  • Steffen Itterheim said,

    Management and money. They’re not the biggest issue for me although I agree they’re both important and pressing problems.

    Looking bad at my time at EA and a former Indie studio (but later bought by a publisher) I noticed one thing:

    Game developers are passionate. Few, if any, have experience in other software industries. Those who did often had really boring jobs. That’s why they most of them put up with it.

    I’d be ok with all that (and was for a long time) but there’s one red line that is *really* killing motivation: you don’t participate in decision making and you don’t share the rewards. If your studio decides to make a game in a genre you don’t like, what can you do? And who is restricted to talk to the community?

    No, it’s really not the money or management that are the real culprits. EA was created specifically with the goal to put the developers out front. How long did that last? It should have lasted till today.

    One day, I’ll make the railroad game I always wanted to do, and name it “Steffen Itterheim’s Railroad Typhoon”. There. 🙂

    Now we put up with contracts that specify that everything you do or “invent” at work is owned by the company. So do I like to propose a cool game idea or feature to my boss or peers? I’d rather not. Can I use the resources at work to pursue my own interests, like Google allows? Not if you want to keep owning your ideas and work. And what about doing games on the side? Hell no, you can’t compete with your employer, so no selling crappy indie projects on Xbox Live Indie Games or the App Store for you.

    For the latter, I asked for permission to help a friend with a commercial Game Maker game, and I’ve been given this reason why the answer is no, and that ought to be telling:

    “We prefer your full focus and attention on the work you do here.”

    So, it’s ok if I go out and play soccer afterwards but I can’t spend my time making a damn, stupid downloadable game for a niche website while working for a big studio?

    Well, no. It could turn out that the game would actually make some money and have me rethink why I’m actually working for someone else. No good. For them.

    But it means everything for me.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    You make a really good point. It’s not just the money that’s part of being a “stakeholder.” It’s ownership. When it is YOUR creation… “your game,” most devs feel sincere passion about it. But when it becomes just *a* game… the game you were assigned to make, with no stake in its success or failure (aside from keeping your job), it’s a lot harder to generate that passion.

    For our first few games at SingleTrac, that’s exactly how we felt. Even though the basic concepts behind the games weren’t generated in-house, we took them and made them our own, working with Sony’s producers (which often meant arguing with them), but we all felt a stake. We were pretty sure the company would tank and we’d all be out of a job if they didn’t do well. These were our first games, so we were putting our reputation out there. We had a (small) financial stake if they did really, really well. We had stock options in the company. All of that combined to make them *our* games, and it’s why we’d be found at our desks working at full-speed at midnight. Nobody told us to work extra hours (at least, nobody told ME, maybe it was different for others).

    We just had a job to do that we cared about.